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Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has some advice for email newsletter publishers: skip the intros and skip the geek lingo (among 165 other tips). Subscribers are scanners, not readers, still prefer email to RSS, and are quick to dump you for a competitor.

Nielsen’s summary of his latest Alertbox posting entitled “Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestion reads this way:

Newsletter usability has increased since our last study, but the competition for users’ attention has also grown with the ever-increasing glut of information.


That’s a tidy summary of a 544-page report with 165 guidelines for newsletter usability available for download through Nielsen’s website, largely based on an eye-tracking study.

While people have lessened the time it takes to subscribe to newsletters by 25 percent (from 5:04 minutes to 4:03), they have become greased lightning when it comes to unsubscribing. Four years ago, it took an average of 3:05 to unsubscribe compared to 1:38 today, or an increase of 89 percent.

This isn’t so much because people have grown more accustomed to how it’s done, says Nielsen, but because companies have invested more into usability, which is a positive. Along with the ease of unsubscribing also comes a higher success rate for signing up (81 percent success compared with 66 percent four years ago). That means that by improving usability of the subscription process, a newsletter with 50,000 subscribers could increase its readership by over 11,000.

Once a publisher has improved its usability and increased its readership, though, it’s important to continue to provide a useful product. The study found that users are quick to trade off newsletters to clean up their in-boxes, which reinforces the notion that your design should have the end-user in mind.

The end-user is a scanner. An eye-tracking study found that users are “extremely fast” at judging the content of their inboxes and newsletter content. You have 51 seconds to get your message(s) across. Participants in the study only fully read 19 percent of newsletters. The heat map of the eye-tracking results revealed that readers often only read the first two words of the headlines.

If you are able to grab the reader with the first two words, remember that the user has become conditioned to skip the flowery introductions and move right to the meat of the articles, disappointing many a skilled writer (sigh) who was taught something else entirely.

People were highly inclined to skip the introductory blah-blah text in newsletters. Although this text was only three lines long on average, our eyetracking recordings revealed that 67% of users had zero fixations within newsletter introductions.


It is also a good idea to drop technical jargon when giving options (HTML or Text) as the end-user may be uncertain what to choose. As for RSS, Nielsen has one suggestion: stop calling it that.

“In our study, 82% of users had no idea what this term meant,” writes Nielsen. ” It’s better to use terms that indicate what the concept does for users. In this case, ‘news feeds’ does this far better than ‘RSS.’

News feeds have an even greater tendency to be scanned than email, and are less likely to be used. The study showed that email is already a widely used, understood, and loved medium that the end-user has little reason to abandon – especially readers already overwhelmed by the influx of new technologies and information gathering methods.

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